Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

WHO Is Accountable Act. Ten House Republicans introduced legislation to defund US participation in the World Health Organization (WHO)—though their press release says they seek to prevent the United States from reentering the international body—until, among other things, WHO ends activities in Iran and Syria. Their claim is misleading, however, because although former President Donald Trump issued an order to end US participation in most WHO activities, he gave his administration one year—until July 2021—to actually withdraw from the body and stop contributing funds to the organization. Shortly after his inauguration, President Joe Biden reversed that decision and committed the United States to fully participating with WHO. There is no need for the United States to “reenter” the organization; it technically never left.

So in practice, what these lawmakers are seeking with H.R. 497 (the text of which can be read here) is to defund Washington’s cooperation with WHO until the body accedes to their list of demands, including cutting off humanitarian support for Iran and Syria. This goes beyond even Trump’s demands. In fact, when he issued his decision, the former president specifically said Washington would continue providing funding for WHO activities in Syria.

Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who serves as the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reintroduced his Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act for the third consecutive Congress. Though he has yet to publish the text of the bill, it is likely to hew closely to previous versions in streamlining US security assistance to states in the Maghreb to help crack down on terrorist organizations in North and West Africa. The legislation would task US agencies like the Department of State, Department of Defense, and US Agency for International Development with coordinating their individual programs in a way that best allows the United States to support partners in places like Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco in their fights against extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in West Africa.

No COVID-19 Vaccines for GITMO Detainees. House Republicans introduced H. Res. 81 (the text of which can be read here), expressing lawmakers’ opposition to the United States vaccinating detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military detention center before Americans receive the vaccines. The majority of the 40 detainees imprisoned in “Gitmo,” how it is often called, hail from Arab states. It is unclear whether the Republican-sponsored resolution has any chance of passing the House.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Bowman Calls on Israel to Vaccinate Palestinians. Freshman Democrat Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) wrote a letter to Israel’s acting consul general this week calling on Israel to make efforts to include Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in its rapid COVID-19 vaccination program. Although defenders of Israel’s vaccination program have argued that the Oslo Accords hand the responsibility of vaccinating people in the occupied territories to the Palestinian Authority, Bowman argued that under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is responsible for providing vaccinations to the people whose land it occupies. In his letter, Bowman also embraced a long history of African American-Palestinian solidarity, connecting his feelings of being alienated as a Black man in the United States to the sentiment Palestinians hold as individuals living under Israeli military rule.

Senator Inhofe Vows to Make Things Tough for President Biden on Iran. In an op-ed for Foreign Policy, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) asserted that “Congress Will Make It Tough for Biden on Iran” if the president sought to make good on his vow to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the title sounds somewhat menacing, Inhofe essentially said Congress would complicate Biden’s efforts to shepherd through his nominees for administration posts that require Senate confirmation. In addition, he stated that some lawmakers would not lend support to a diplomatic approach that did not demand that Iran sign a permanent, comprehensive, and transparent new deal that had the support of Israel and Arab partners.

Senator Bill Hagerty Taps Former Syria Envoy as Special Advisor. Freshman Senator Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee) announced this week that he has hired former Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn to serve as a special advisor for Middle East affairs. As he was leaving the Trump Administration, Rayburn made clear that he desires to find ways to make life hard for the Assad regime in Syria. Working in the Senate, he will not be afforded the same power and influence he once wielded in the executive branch, but he nonetheless can have a say in shaping US policy toward Syria and the rest of the region.

3) Nominations

Senate Confirms Alejandro Mayorkas as DHS Chief. By a final vote of 56-43, the Senate confirmed Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As the agency tasked with enforcing the laws and regulations governing immigration, the responsibilities of Mayorkas and his team will include executing the Biden Administration’s new policy on entry of refugees. One such policy Mayorkas and DHS will be responsible for upholding is the extension of temporary protected status (TPS) for Syrians living in the United States. Just over a week after President Biden’s inauguration, his acting DHS secretary renewed TPS—which currently covers more than 6,700 Syrians living in the country—until September 2022, protecting these individuals from deportation. The order also opens the TPS program to roughly 1,800 other Syrians residing in the United States. Furthermore, Mayorkas would be in charge of implementing President Biden’s potential new policy that would raise the number of refugees admitted to the United States every year from roughly 15,000 to a cap of 125,000.

Senate Foreign Relations Holds Hearing for UN Ambassador Nominee. On January 27, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations. Similar to the range of nominees already confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield marched in lockstep with President Biden’s foreign policy vision. While stressing the importance of pivoting to Asia to combat Chinese expansion, Thomas-Greenfield was questioned on issues in Iran, Yemen, and Syria.

Regarding Iran, Thomas-Greenfield reinforced President Biden’s stated goal of limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities. She said that the Biden Administration will make every effort to ensure that the Iranians do not gain access to a nuclear weapon. To do this, Thomas-Greenfield stressed the importance of working alongside the UN Security Council to gain support from allies. She noted the importance of finding common ground with Russia and China to urge Iran to return to strict compliance with the JCPOA and prevent a repeat of the failed effort to extend the US arms embargo on Iran, which earned only one UN Security Council vote. Overall, Thomas-Greenfield promoted a tough, concerted approach to Iran, saying she supports the implementation of new measures to hold Iran accountable for its nuclear program and its aggressive actions regionally. Her stated plans stood in stark contrast to those of the Trump Administration, which undertook unilateral actions instead of working multilaterally within the United Nations.

Responding to questions about Yemen, Thomas-Greenfield described the situation in Yemen as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and vowed to seek an updated UN Resolution that supports the Yemeni people and seeks an end to the fighting. She also committed to pushing the United Nations to provide relief for the people suffering under years of war in Syria. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) noted, the United Nations failed to reauthorize the flow of humanitarian aid through three of four border crossings to Syria in the summer of 2020. Thomas-Greenfield told the committee that she will work with the international community to open these border crossing access points between Syria and its neighbors in Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan to ensure that aid can make its way to those who are struggling.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield also reaffirmed the Biden Administration’s stated priority to rejoin and strengthen international institutions. She said she supports the United States rejoining the UN Human Rights Council, partly because she views it as a platform in which Washington can force the council to propose and adopt fewer resolutions that target the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. On the topic of Israel, Thomas-Greenfield called the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement “unacceptable” and argued that its activities verge on anti-Semitism.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA Sullivan Speaks with Turkish Counterpart. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan continued to reach out to officials in the Middle East this week and spoke with the chief advisor to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. According to the readout, the pair discussed ways to strengthen US-Turkish relations, but Sullivan raised concerns about a host of Ankara’s activities of concern, including running afoul of US law by deploying the Russian made S-400 missile defense system. The White House also said Sullivan expressed the administration’s support for democratic institutions and the rule of law, perhaps implicitly criticizing Ankara’s continued crackdown on any perceived threats to Erdoğan’s regime.

White House, Palestinian Authority Make First Contact. The United States and the Palestinian Authority (PA) reportedly made contact for the first time in over two years. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh spoke with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr. The two discussed restoring diplomatic relations—including reopening the PLO mission to the United States—and resuming US support for the Palestinians, including through the UN Relief and Works Agency. Even this minor effort at thawing relations was too much for some in Washington, however. Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) issued a press release saying that President Biden—a self-proclaimed Zionist—is hostile to Israel because his administration is carrying out diplomacy with the PA.

Biden Upholds Tariffs on Emirati Aluminum Imports. In an executive order this week, President Biden maintained 25 percent tariffs on Emirati aluminum imported into the United States. He cited it as a national security imperative and is wielding the measure to boost domestic production of aluminum.

2) Department of State

Biden Administration to Review Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE. The Biden Administration made good on its vow to review the outgoing administration’s decisions to rush through proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The review means that, for Saudi Arabia, the potential sale of munitions is frozen until further notice. The UAE’s proposed deal, including a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, is not paused during the review, but orders of that magnitude take years to complete and there is still no guarantee they will come to fruition. The general sentiment at present is that many of these deals will ultimately go through—and indeed, the UAE ambassador to the United States is confident that this will be the case—but the Biden Administration has plenty of time to make its decision.

Secretary Blinken Names Rob Malley as Iran Envoy. Despite all the rancor from Iran hawks in Washington, Secretary of State Tony Blinken tapped former Obama Administration official Rob Malley to serve as the US special envoy for Iran. Malley has been criticized by the right for his role in negotiating the JCPOA, with many maliciously labeling him anti-Israel and an “Iran sympathizer.” However, many Democrats, particularly those from the more progressive wing of the party, are heartened by the move.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Officials from Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. Secretary of State Tony Blinken held sessions for the first time with his Iraqi, Jordanian, and Israeli counterparts this week. First, Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi about regional developments and the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security. The secretary then held a call with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein to express condolences for the Islamic State attack in Baghdad; he also mentioned the need for the Iraqi government to address the demands of protesters in the country. Finally, Blinken and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi discussed US-Jordanian efforts to pursue regional stability.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Speaks with Israel’s Benny Gantz, General McKenzie Visits Israel. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz this week about the US-Israeli defense relationship and the need to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge over its regional neighbors. The US Central Command chief, General Frank McKenzie, continued the Pentagon’s outreach to Israel, reassuring officials there of the Biden Administration’s commitment to deterring Iran.

Pentagon Shuffles Military Assets In and Out of the Region. In an effort to demonstrate a policy of deterrence, the Pentagon flew another B-52 sortie over the Levant and Arabian Gulf as a “message” to Tehran. However, the Department of Defense removed another proclaimed source of deterrence, the naval warship USS Nimitz, ending its deployment in Gulf waters. The ship had been deployed to the area for roughly nine months as part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to maintain military pressure on Iran. Finally, the Pentagon moved a large military convoy from Iraq to northeastern Syria, where it is set to deploy to the Kurdish-held province.

DoD Undertakes Review of Special Operations War Crimes. The Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General notified military leadership this week that it is undertaking a review of Special Operations Command to ensure that it has in place suitable measures for preventing and addressing war crimes. In the nearly 20-year “global war on terrorism,” special forces have been accused of using excessive force and killing civilians in war zones like Iraq. This is a stark departure from the Trump Administration’s position when the president himself not only excused war crimes committed abroad, but openly advocated for committing these illegal acts.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here